For the first time, more Japanese people over 65 have been recorded committing crimes than their teenage counterparts — a sign of the country's inverted population pyramid, where an increasingly isolated elderly cohort now accounts for a quarter of its population.
According to Japan's National Police Agency, more than 23,000 people older than 65 were cited for crimes in the first six months of this year. By comparison, authorities booked fewer than 20,000 teenagers between 14 and 19 in the same period.
The results might not reflect a trend — crime in Japan is still minuscule compared to most countries — but they do reflect a larger demographic shift, long underway in Japan, that is now reaching critical point: Japan is having very few babies, and its citizenry is rapidly aging.
The country's population has decreased every year since 2010. By 2060, its current total of 127 million is expected to fall precipitously to under 90 million. By then, 40 percent of all Japanese are predicted to be over 65 years old. In 2013, alarmingly, the Japanese government announced that more adult diapers had been sold than nappies for babies.
While overall crime figures have been on the decline in recent years, those committed by Japan's elderly have doubled in the last decade, according to Bloomberg. Many of those who commit petty crimes — shoplifting is among the most common — are older Japanese who live alone, secluded, and with meager savings.
If caring for an aging population is expensive to begin with, it only costs more when senior citizens are behind bars. While Japan incarcerates its citizens far less on average than the United States, nearly 1 in 5 prisoners is over 65. Laws on the books for repeat offenders can lead to sentences of several years. Some older offenders, in fact, have said that they committed crimes in order to get back into prison.
"One of the worrying things I find is the really rapid increase in single-member households that consist of people over 65," Shihoko Goto, a researcher at the Wilson Center's Asia Program, told VICE News. "It is becoming a social problem. There are more people who are isolated."
Certain incidents have become national news. In June, an elderly man riding a bullet train doused himself with accelerant and set himself on fire. The man, who reportedly voiced anger at his pension, and another passenger perished.
From a macroeconomic perspective, an aging population means that a country's citizenry is forced to pay more for their cumulative care — and it means that there are fewer young people to pay into social security schemes that would provide that care.
Goto said that in addition to Japan's place as an advanced economy where people simply tend to have fewer children, social mores specific to the country exacerbate the trend.
"It's seen that when you get a girl pregnant, you have to marry her," she explained. "That might scare off a lot of young men from having a relationship in the first place."
"From a female perspective, the downside of getting married is huge," she added. "If I'm working for Mitsubishi and pulling in good money, but working longer hours — from 8AM to 10PM — and my fiancé tells me we can't continue this way, one of us needs to be home more and that's you, and you are going to live next to my mom… that's not a very attractive proposition for me."
Some have called for Japan to overhaul strict immigration policies to help make up for its meager fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman. Nearby regions, like Southeast Asia, have growing populations that could provide labor in Japan. In developed countries with lower child mortality rates, a fertility quotient of 2.1 is often cited as the floor to maintain population levels as they stand. Countries like the US with fertility rates below that threshold are still able to grow precisely because they receive more immigrants.
But while economic axioms hold that populations — and GDPs — should continue to grow into perpetuity, a smaller labor pool could offer women in Japan a more important role in the workforce.
"When people graduate from high school or college, men and women tend to join the labor force at the same rate, but after a few years women precipitously drop from the workforce because of marriage, or more usually, after they have their first child," said Goto. "It can be an opportunity to push forward with good social change."